To better understand the leadership difficulties and growth possibilities facing high-potential employees, researchers evaluated over 3,000 applications to the High Potentials Leadership Program at Harvard Business School over nearly two decades. The high-potentials identified five consistent leadership challenges: leading teams, leading change, leadership style, leading at scale, and driving business results, while their sponsors identified six development areas: strategic management, emotional intelligence, communication, leading at scale, leading teams, and relationship management.

What do high-potential workers describe as their primary obstacles? And what areas of growth must they focus on as they ascend the corporate ladder?

To better comprehend these obstacles, we analysed over 3,000 applications and sponsor comments for individuals admitted to Harvard Business School’s High Potentials Leadership Program (HPLP) between 2003 and 2021. The admissions committee requested that candidates describe their principal leadership problem, their goals for attending the school, and their leadership style and approach. Sponsors were required to describe the applicant’s qualities and limitations, explain the rationale behind their nomination, and state their intentions for the candidate.

Our investigation offered insight on how firms evaluate the strengths and developmental requirements of their leaders on the fast track, as well as how these executives describe their most significant obstacles. These findings can inform how managers can help fast-track executives realise their full potential and how businesses can shape the content and delivery of leadership development programmes.


Over nearly 20 years, the high potentials in our program have consistently identified five consistent leadership challenges:

  • Leading teams
  • Leading change
  • Leadership style
  • Leading at scale
  • Driving business results
High Potentials Challenges

More over thirty percent of high potentials indicated team leadership as their primary problem. A 2005 CEO remarked, “My greatest leadership difficulty is establishing strategies for directing team members.” “Each team member has a unique history and is motivated differently. Then I must handle differently.”

After fifteen years, high potentials observed the extra challenge of remotely directing global teams. “Having sufficient time to develop people while promoting company goals is a significant difficulty, particularly in a virtual context,” remarked one participant in the 2020 programme.

In general, men and women acknowledged comparable leadership problems. Nonetheless, more women than males identified “leadership style” as a difficulty. According to one lady, “I struggle with my leadership style.” I am extremely goal-oriented and believe that everyone around me should be able to achieve the same. When providing instructions or talking with team members, I might sometimes come across as authoritative and authoritarian. Although I am widely acknowledged and respected, I want to ensure that my leadership style continues to be one of encouragement, inspiration, and development, as opposed to one that turns people off and discourages them from following my vision.


The transformation from solo contributor to team leader may be quite challenging. The capacity to generate outcomes and functional or technical competence have been cited as the primary criteria for recognising and nominating workers as high potentials throughout the previous two decades.

To reach the next level, however, high potentials who have been recognised for individual achievements must learn to readjust their definition of success to one based on the team’s performance. When high potentials contend with the magnitude, breadth, and complexity of increasingly senior general management jobs, relying just on a history of performance will not be sufficient.

According to the managers in our data set, advancing to higher levels of leadership involves six crucial competencies:

  • Strategic management
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Communication
  • Leading at scale
  • Leading teams
  • Relationship managemenT
High Potentials Development

When the sponsors in our data set contemplated the next step for their high potentials, they frequently emphasised the need for these individuals to have a broader perspective and a deeper understanding of the strategic and competitive environment. They observed that the technical and functional abilities that allowed high-potential employees to flourish may hinder their capacity to comprehend the “big picture.” One manager commented, “Calvin’s* shortcoming is comprehending how what he controls affects the entire business in a broader context.”

In addition to broadening their perspectives, those with great potential must also develop their emotional intelligence and communication abilities. A sample response from a sponsor stated, “John’s hard talents are quite strong. He excels in operations, sales, and leading the development of new technologies, but he needs to strengthen his soft skills. Regarding how he handles others, he has a significant blind spot. Sponsors in our sample were more likely to perceive strategic management as a growth opportunity for women and emotional intelligence as a developmental opportunity for males.


When businesses want to guarantee that its high potentials realise their potential, they must be prepared to provide them with the skills to think and act strategically, to lead with greater conviction, and to create and nurture relationships. In essence, firms must provide the scaffolding for high-potential employees to concurrently develop both the macro skills of strategy and the micro skills of interpersonal connections.

Our study revealed three distinct goals for firms seeking to cultivate their high potentials:


While the majority of high potentials have expertise managing small teams, their next career move will likely require leading bigger teams, where they will not be able to connect with every team member on a regular basis. When high potentials advance to leadership roles with more size and breadth, they must provide the circumstances necessary for the team to function well without their daily presence. This entails designing operational platforms and incentives to reinforce excellent behaviours, supporting and maintaining a dynamic and healthy culture, and creating an environment that allows team members to grow, develop, and create.

Managers may assist this initiative by monitoring the development of high-potential employees’ core leadership skills, such as team management, relationship building, and communication. Specifically, a high potential’s capacity to manage effective teams, inspire and motivate others, and convey a compelling vision depends on their communication skills. While they may be good in small team meetings and one-on-one encounters, they must also thrive at communicating on a larger scale and with more breadth. This demands displaying assurance, conviction, and precision.


When one advances in their job, they must frequently rely on others to do their work, which involves trust, assistance, and direction. In essence, it requires emotional intelligence, and self-awareness and empathy are two essential components of emotional intelligence for high potentials. Several studies have found a correlation between self-aware leaders and environments that are welcoming, supporting, and productive. Thus, self-awareness-enhancing activities and experiences for high potentials are crucial. This may be achieved via feedback, evaluations, role plays, and video recordings.

Together with self-awareness, empathy is essential for conflict management, coaching and mentoring subordinates, and motivating and inspiring others. It has also been demonstrated to be necessary for intercultural teams. Empathy, despite its merits, is sometimes undermined by a hyperfocus on goals and performance. Strangely, while empathy tends to weaken as one advances in rank, this is precisely when it is required the most, particularly when one is leading and not performing.

Although many feel that empathy is innate, it may be taught, but it needs a commitment to altering one’s conduct. Empathy abilities may be strengthened by concentrating on inquiry, developing active listening skills, appreciating diverse views, and exhibiting real concern.


In order to go from a core technical or particular functional area to a general management position, high potentials must understand how multiple functions interact and how their organization’s strategic imperatives impact and are influenced by the dominant contextual landscape. The development of contextual intelligence – the capacity to comprehend the situation and modify one’s style and approach — would be advantageous for leaders. This means leaving one’s comfort zone (such as one’s primary technical expertise) and adopting a growth mentality.

A learning mindset needs an openness to new experiences, a feeling of curiosity and inquiry, and a readiness to examine one’s preconceptions, prejudices, and viewpoints. By developing a culture of psychological safety and risk-taking, organisations can facilitate the growth of these competencies. They can also give high potentials with the chance to contribute to strategic initiatives beyond their main functional area, enabling them to engage in scenario planning and projection assessments, and provide them stretch possibilities in new markets or new product/service areas.

While high potentials have been acknowledged for their focus on outcomes and work ethic, the next stage in their leadership development will depend on their ability to work with and through others. This achievement will result from a greater emphasis on emotional intelligence, communication, and relationship management. To ensure the success of their high potentials, managers and organisations must give coaching, developmental assistance, and stretch chances, while high potentials must adopt a growth-oriented and receptive mentality.